Dr. John Montague has a degree in anthropology, but his true vocation and passion is studying psychic phenomena. He strives to publish one of the first credible studies in the field. Dr. Montague finds Hill House, a house long reputed to be haunted, and invites two participants for a study: Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two-year-old woman reported to have had experiences with a poltergeist as a child, and Theodora, a young woman marked in lab records as having potential psychic abilities. Luke Sanderson, a thief with a penchant for lying, also volunteers to join them. Luke has been sent by his aunt, Hill House’s current owner, to keep an eye on everyone else.
Eleanor’s sister and brother-in-law are suspicious of Dr. Montague and forbid Eleanor from taking their shared car to go to Hill House. Prior to her mother’s recent death, Eleanor had spent most of her adult life as her mother’s caretaker, and she is desperate to establish her independence. She decides to participate in the study anyway and steals the car. On the way to Hill House, she stops at a diner where she overhears a young girl insisting on drinking her milk from a special “cup of stars.” Eleanor thinks to herself that the girl is brave for holding her ground against her parents.
Eleanor is the first guest to arrive at Hill House, a house “without kindness, never meant to be lived in.” She meets the home’s caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, who seem unwelcoming and cold. Mr. Dudley explains that he and his wife live six miles away and refuse to stay at the house after dark. The Dudleys encourage Eleanor to leave the house, but Eleanor ignores her instinct to flee. Convinced that turning back would be a personal failure, Eleanor recites the lyrics “journeys end in lovers meeting,” a refrain she repeats whenever she is scared.
Inside, Mrs. Dudley takes Eleanor to the blue room, a bedroom decorated in entirely in blue. Theodora arrives soon after and is brought to the adjacent bedroom, known as the green room. Theodora’s bubbly personality immediately charms Eleanor, and they become fast friends, even jokingly deciding that they might be cousins. They decide to explore the grounds together, resting at an idyllic brook that looks like something out of a fairy tale. Eleanor gets spooked when she sees something moving across the hill, and she admits that she doubts she can complete the study and might have to go home. But Theodora reassures her, saying that she only saw a rabbit and that nothing can separate them now.
Dr. Montague and Luke arrive last. Everyone notes the strange, maze-like structure of the house. When the group presses Dr. Montague to tell them about the house, he refuses, saying that it’s dark outside and he doesn’t want them to leave. He explains that the last person who left the house at night was killed when his horse crushed him against a tree in the driveway.
After dinner, Dr. Montague relents and tells the house’s history, careful to separate fact from fiction. The house was built eighty years ago by a man named Hugh Crain. Tragically, Crain’s wife died right before they moved in, when her carriage overturned in the driveway. Hugh married twice more. His second wife died in a mysterious fall, and his third wife died of consumption. Crain eventually closed the house and sent his two daughters to live with relatives. For years, Crain’s daughters fought viciously over ownership of the house. The older sister died in Hill House and left it to her caretaker, a young woman. The younger sister harassed the caretaker, eventually causing the young woman to hang herself in the house’s turret. The caretaker’s relatives, the Sandersons, then took ownership of Hill House.
The group meets for breakfast the next morning. Dr. Montague and Luke witness the doors they had propped open swing shut just before the women arrive. Dr. Montague explains that Crain designed the house so that every angle is slightly off, and he wonders aloud if this could explain people’s paranormal experiences in the house. As the group explores the house, Eleanor notices a foul odor coming from the library, and later, they all experience an inexplicable cold spot in the nursery’s doorway. Out on the veranda, Eleanor nearly falls over the railing as she tries to catch a glimpse of the house’s tower.
During a break, Theodora paints Eleanor’s toenails red, and Eleanor becomes upset, explaining that she believes that the color red is wicked. Later that night, Eleanor wakes to hear her dead mother calling her, and she runs to Theodora’s room. Suddenly, they both then hear a banging noise in the hall. Eleanor and Theodora clutch each other as the banging continues down the hall to Theodora’s door. The door shakes violently and then stops. Dr. Montague and Luke arrive soon after, saying they had been chasing after something they saw in the hall. Curiously, the men claim they didn’t hear anything right before they reached Theodora’s door.
The next morning, Eleanor comments that while she remembers being frightened the night before, she doesn’t actually remember feeling frightened. Luke admits that he feels the same. While getting coffee, Luke discovers the words HELP ELEANOR COME HOME written in chalk in the hall. Eleanor panics at the thought that the house knows her name. Theodora suggests that Eleanor wrote the message herself, which sets off an argument. Dr. Montague ends the fight by suggesting that they go measure the cold spot in the nursery. Later, Theodora returns to her room and discovers that all of her clothing has been torn up, and the words HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR have been written across her wall in blood. Eleanor seems unmoved by the incident and says that maybe the words were written in red nail polish or paint, not blood.
Theodora moves to Eleanor’s room and borrows Eleanor’s clothing. Secretly, Eleanor hates seeing Theodora wear her clothes. Dr. Montague reassures everyone by saying that ghosts can’t hurt them—the only thing that can cause physical harm is fear. Eleanor reveals that she wants to surrender to the house, which worries Dr. Montague. Later, Eleanor hears a child being tortured in the next room as she drifts in and out of sleep. She clutches what she believes is Theodora’s hand for comfort. Later, Eleanor wakes to find Theodora beside her but out of arm’s reach, and Eleanor wonders whose hand she had been holding.
The next morning, Eleanor and Luke go outside, where Eleanor asks Luke to tell her something about himself that no one else knows. Luke reveals that he never had a mother, and that he sometimes wishes someone would make him grow up. Since Luke is the first man Eleanor has been alone with, her mind nervously races to figure out Luke’s intentions and character, settling on the idea that he’s selfish and shallow. Back inside, Luke discovers a book that Hugh Crain made for his daughters warning them to be pious. The book includes gory Goya paintings, graphic biblical images of people burning in hell, and a message from Crain written in his own blood. Disgusted, Theodora curses the book and Hill House. She then teases Eleanor about Luke, asking Eleanor whether she’ll invite him back to her apartment with her “cup of stars” after the study ends. Embarrassed, Eleanor runs outside, and Theodora guiltily follows.
Outside, the women find themselves on a black pathway surrounded by white trees. Eleanor clutches Theodora’s hand, feeling their psychic connection yet noting the lack of heat in Theodora’s skin. They come across a picnic scene with children. Scared, the women rush back inside, where Luke and Dr. Montague ask what happened. Theodora tries to talk but can’t complete her thoughts and Eleanor mutters something about a picnic.
Dr. Montague’s wife, a parapsychologist, arrives at Hill House with her friend, Arthur. Embarrassed by Dr. Montague’s lack of progress, Mrs. Montague claims she’ll set things right with a more methodical approach. After using a planchette device to communicate with spirits, Mrs. Montague reports that a spirit named “Nell” revealed that it wants to go “home” because “mother.” The group feels uncomfortable and looks at Eleanor. Mrs. Montague then insists on spending the night in the nursery, the most haunted room in the house. She tells everyone not to be afraid, as most spirits are just lonely and longing for connection.
The rest of the group goes to bed but later gathers in one bedroom because Dr. Montague wants them to be together should something else happen. Soon, they hear a banging in the hall. The noise grows louder until it reaches the door, which begins to shake violently. Feeling overwhelmed and cold, Eleanor decides to relinquish possession of herself and loses consciousness. The next morning, Eleanor wakes to find Luke in a chair by the window, his face bruised. Theodora blithely remarks that the house took them all on a “mad midnight fling.” Dr. Montague checks on Mrs. Montague and Arthur, whom he says are still sleeping soundly.
Later that morning, Dr. Montague asks Mrs. Montague and Arthur if they noticed anything strange the night before. Mrs. Montague complains that her room was stuffy, and Arthur says he only heard branches tapping his window. Later, when Eleanor invites Theodora to live with her once the study concludes, Theodora laughs and declines the offer. Eleanor wistfully replies that she’s never been wanted anywhere. Later, Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor walk to the brook. Eleanor says that she feels responsible for her mother’s death because she didn’t wake up the night her mother called for her medicine. Theodora wonders aloud if Eleanor just likes to feel responsible for the death. Eleanor walks ahead, lost in thought, and finds herself alone when she reaches the brook. She hears her name being called but sees no one.
Later that evening, the group gathers in the parlor while Mrs. Montague and Arthur continue using the planchette in the library. Suddenly, Mrs. Montague rushes into the parlor, stating that the planchette no longer works because of everyone’s skepticism. Eleanor hears a child singing in the middle of the room and feels something brush her face. She realizes that no one else hears the voice and feels happy knowing that only she can hear and sense what goes on in Hill House.
Eleanor wakes in the night to go to the library. She reasons that she’s going there to get a book, but she knows that she’s being drawn there not entirely of her own volition. At the library, Eleanor smells an awful odor and hears someone call, “Come along.” Believing the voice is her mother’s, Eleanor races back upstairs and knocks on all the bedroom doors, calling inside. Mrs. Montague answers from inside the nursery, thinking that Eleanor is a ghost. Eleanor notices that not only has the doorway’s cold spot vanished, but the whole house feels warm to her now. Realizing that the others are searching for her, Eleanor runs back downstairs and evades them by using her ability to hear everything in the house. Back at the library, Eleanor climbs the rickety iron stairway to the turret. Everyone is afraid that the stairway will collapse, but Luke climbs up and ushers Eleanor back to safety.
The next morning, Dr. Montague insists that Eleanor leave the house. Mrs. Montague suggests that someone drive Eleanor home, but Dr. Montague says Eleanor must sever all association with the house immediately. As Eleanor drives down the driveway, she looks back at the others watching her go. She pities them for thinking that they can thwart Hill House’s desire to keep her. Suddenly, Eleanor accelerates toward the oak tree, and for a brief moment, she wonders why she’s doing it and why the others aren’t stopping her. After Eleanor’s suicide, the study concludes, and the others return to their lives. Dr. Montague publishes his study, but it’s met with ridicule by his peers.